By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007
Clinton Portis has a message for the NFL. Often injured the past year, he says he is back and healthy for a regular season game for the first time since 2005 -- when he set the franchise rushing record.
"Sunday, September 9; Sunday, September 9," he said yesterday at Redskins Park. "FedEx Field, 1 o'clock. Washington Redskins. Miami Dolphins. Clinton Portis will be there."
Perhaps no Redskin stirs such disparate passion among fans, with Portis revered by many for his toughness, explosiveness and outsize personality, but criticized for his flamboyant and provocative nature.
Portis's disdain for preseason games and training in general has privately rankled some teammates, who think he has been coddled by Coach Joe Gibbs during four years here. But all factions agree on one thing: As long as Portis racks up the 100-yard games, everything else will be forgiven.
As much as Portis, 26, basks in the limelight, he is aware of how fleeting the attention can be. The career arc for a top running back is particularly short and Portis was a workhorse his first two seasons here. In 2004-2005, only two NFL running backs had more carries than Portis (Shaun Alexander and Rudi Johnson), and last year injuries meant Portis never really was himself on the field.
Now, not even two offseason surgeries (hand and shoulder) and a bout of knee tendinitis that began in May and returned the first week of camp -- keeping him out of practice from July 30 until last week -- will deter him now ("I've got no limitations, I feel fine," Portis said).
Gibbs has been unequivocal about Portis starting Sunday, even with backup Ladell Betts coming off a 1,000-yard season. Although Betts stands to figure prominently, Portis said he could handle his usual workload of 20 to 25 carries.
"I think I can handle any workload that's given to me," Portis said. "Whatever is given to me, that's what I can handle. I'm not going to pout and ask for more, and I'm not going to complain and say I need less. When they call my number I'll respond."
Portis said he plans to head to the sideline as often as necessary and has no problem sharing the backfield with Betts. "Me and Ladell are going to coexist," Portis said. "We're going to have fun."
The medical staff advised prolonged rest for the tendinitis and Gibbs has been pleased by the early results. "I don't think we had any flare-ups or anything, so hopefully we made the right decision and got that thing healed up," Gibbs said.
His teammates offer varying opinions on what is a reasonable expectation for Portis, given the length of his absence.
"Everybody is second-guessing him because of his injury; I don't second-guess him none at all," fullback Mike Sellers said. "He doesn't have to practice at all in the preseason and it doesn't matter to me because I know he knows what he has to do, so I know its going to be like 'I told you so' after the game."
Center Casey Rabach said that to expect Portis to be able to rush 25 times or reach 100 yards Sunday may be ambitious. "That would be nice, obviously, but I think that's high and lofty goals for it. The good thing is we've got Ladell and him, and Ladell's been working all through camp."
Portis believes his preseason inactivity is no hindrance and, in fact, his predicament is not unlike the rest of the league. "Who is in football shape until Week 3 or 4?" Portis asked, before offering his own answer: "There's not going to be a player in the league in football condition. Everybody's going to be in the same boat."
A year ago, after Portis missed most of the preseason with a dislocated shoulder, Gibbs surprised many by playing him in Week 1. He rushed 10 times for 39 yards, missed the next game and never recovered, forced often to the sideline because of conditioning and injuries. He went on the injured reserve list after the ninth game with a broken hand.
While there was speculation about Portis's standing this offseason, Gibbs was adamant that he had no desire to part with him, considering him as vital as any player on the team. Quips about Portis's standing with Gibbs and his input in player acquisitions are common -- "I'm just glad I'm on the roster because of Clinton," starting quarterback Jason Campbell joked this week, referring to Portis as the team's "assistant vice president" -- and while the remarks are good-natured, some defensive players in particular have chafed about what seems to be a different standard for the star.
There is no dispute that for all that he has accomplished here, Portis, acquired for cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round pick in 2004, has not come close to matching his output in Denver.
In two years with the Broncos -- who routinely coax 1,000 yards out of backs -- Portis averaged 5.5 yards per carry with 29 rushing touchdowns in 29 games, for an average of one score every 19 rushes. In Washington he has averaged 4.1 yards per carry with 23 rushing touchdowns in 39 games, with an average of one touchdown every 36 rushes.
The NFL average the past three seasons is 4.1 yards per carry, and one touchdown for every 35 rushing attempts.
Portis's salary in the coming years is anything but average, of course. It jumps from a non-guaranteed base of $595,000 this season to $5 million in 2008, then $6.6 million, $7.7 million and $8.8 million in 2011. Portis has intimated at times about the nomadic nature of the game, and how even former local icons such as linebacker LaVar Arrington have moved on.
No better time than now to make a declaration about his future, to prove that the injuries are a blip in the past and not a sign of things to come.
"If we don't win, this could be it for a lot of people," Portis said. "If I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do, then there's going to be a lot of things that change around here."